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Nice Self-Driving Car. But How Much Does It Cost?

Budisteanu, 19, of Romania, was awarded first place at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Photograph by Manfred Auer via Youtube

Budisteanu, 19, of Romania, was awarded first place at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Just a few years ago, the idea that a 19-year-old from Romania had built a self-driving car would’ve sounded like science fiction. Now, to get attention, Ionut Alexandru Budisteanu had to do it on the cheap. While Google’s (GOOG) autonomous driving vehicle costs $75,000, Budisteanu’s system—which uses 3D radar and a mounted camera to detect traffic lanes and curbs—can be had for $4,000. For that, he won the Gordon E. Moore Award at Intel’s (INTC) International Science and Engineering Fair last week.

The self-driving application

The race is on to drive down costs for similar vehicles. Researchers at the University of Oxford have built a system of self-driving-car cameras for £5,000 ($7,500), which they told Engadget in February could be as cheap as £500. That’s good, because apparently consumers have gotten comfortable enough with the concept that they’re worried about the price. According to a J.D. Power & Associates (MHFI) survey published in April, 39 percent of people would be interested in owning an autonomous car, but only 21 percent said they’d be interested if it cost them an extra $3,000.

Drivers were much more interested in paying a premium for semiautonomous features, such as emergency braking and steering or electronic parking assistance—fortunately for them, these features are actually available. The interest in self-driving cars is about the same as it was a year ago, but the novelty seems to have worn off, says Michael VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive at J.D. Power. “In one year’s time, we’ve gone from ‘This is really interesting and exciting’ to ‘You’ve got to earn my trust,’” he says.

Lawmakers are likely the biggest hurdle. Autonomous vehicles are legal for testing purposes in Nevada, California, and Florida, and Google (GOOG) is reportedly buttering up federal regulators. But even smartphone apps that hail taxis have faced a tough legislative road in the past several years.

Obviously there are safety questions. Insurance is also a major unknown: Is the owner of an autonomous vehicle liable for accidents? Is the manufacturer? Does that change, depending on what kind of manual override features are available?

Others raise concerns about the personal data being collected. “Google has repeatedly demonstrated that it only pays lip service to privacy concerns and repeatedly violated consumers’ privacy,” John Simpson, the privacy director of advocacy nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, said in a statement following the signing of the driverless car law in California. “Consumers must have the right to give opt-in consent before any data gathered through driverless car technology is used for any purpose other than driving the vehicle.”

Ironing out these questions will likely take much longer than it takes to make the technology broadly affordable. Negotiating answers is probably beyond the capacity of even the most precocious teenager.

Brustein is a writer for in New York.

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